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The Boar’s Head

The Boar’s Head is probably the oldest continuing festival of the Yuletide season. This pageant is rooted in ancient times when the boar was sovereign of the forest. A ferocious beast and menace to humans, it was hunted as a public enemy.

“The boar is the beast of death,” Robert Graves says (White Goddess. pg. 210), and much of the sacred and symbolic import of boars and pigs in general is in fact connected with death. Death is, of course, a central concern of most religions, but in those which emphasize the danger to the soul of devouring demons, and in those in which human sacrifice is an important element, contemplation of death takes on a special vividness and immediacy. The pig is, among other things, a devourer; it is a menace to crops and to people, it is voracious and it is omnivorous. Even the strong-stomached goat will not eat meat, its young, or manure. Thus for dangerousness the pig has no rival among domestic animals, except the bull.

To the modern mind the uncleanness of the pig is obviously connected to the pig’s affinity for dirt. To the ancients the concept was more ambiguous. The primary meaning of uncleanness was holiness. Therefore, to come in contact with an unclean creature, that is, a creature highly charged with spiritual power, was somewhat equivalent to touching a radioactive object. Among the Egyptians also, touching a pig was unclean, and swineherds were a class almost of untouchables, forbidden even to enter a temple (Frazer. p. 548). Once a year, however, pigs were sacrificed to Osiris and to the moon, and at that time their flesh was eaten. Thus, the eating of pork, at the proper time, was a sacremental act. There is in myth a tendency for things to mean, or to be, also their opposite; the pig’s very holiness makes it unclean.

The pig is, in fact, rather human in its omnivorousness, its propensity for violence, and in the sparceness of its hair. A pig hung up to be butched does look disconcertingly human, especially from a distance. The heart of a pig has valves in it sufficiently close to human heart valves that it is the heart of choice from which to harvest replacement valves to save human lives in the face of a failing human heart valve, especially in the older population.

Pigs, however, have been gods as well. According to Frazer (Frazer. 554), “it may almost be laid down as a rule that an animal which is said to have injured a god was originally the god himself.” Attis, Adonis, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne and Osirus all had been boars, if this is true.
According to Joseph Campbell (Primitive Mythology. 446), the gleaming white boar’s tusks represent the moon, and their significance is that they are crescent shaped. The moon, which wanes, dies, and is reborn is a symbol of rebirth, thus linking the boar to the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Here we see the aspect of the boar that is feminine, for Cerridwen, a Celtic grain goddess, was depicted as a sow; and apparently at one time the Greek grain goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone were also pigs.

There is, however, at least one example of a pig whose divine role is both masculine and feminine as well as solar: the Norse fertility god Freyr rides a chariot through the sky drawn by a great red-gold boar and his sister, Freya is shown riding a boar. Freyr’s boar Gullenbursti (“Golden Mane”), was manufactured by the dwarf Sindri as the result of a wager between Sindri’s brother Brokkr and Loki. The bristles in Gullinbursti’s mane glowed in the dark to illuminate the way for his owner.

Freya rode the boar Hildesvini (Battle Swine) when she was not using her cat-drawn chariot. According to the poem Hyndluljóð, Freyja concealed the identity of her protégé Óttar by turning him into a boar. In Norse mythology, the boar was generally associated with fertility.

While the pig is mainly a night, lunar, underworld creature, there are solar pigs that do exist. In addition to Freyr’s gold bristled boar, there is the Calydonian boar, which Ovid in his Metamorphosis describes as a boar that behaves like the mid-summer sun. Although the solar nature of this boar may seem only conjectural, it does show the transition from a more earth oriented religion to a more masculine sky-father one.

The three colors sacred to the moon goddess–white, black and red are also the common colors of pigs. The white pig, a sow of course, primarily represents fertility. The Celtic Cerridwen, in fact, means white sow. The city founded by Aeneas, Alba Longa, the forerunner of Rome, was also named for a white sow, for the river god Tiber told Aeneas to build where he found a white sow lying with thirty newborn piglets at her udder. The black pig, on the other hand, is the underworld death pig. The red boar is probably the solar beast.

Like the bear, it was revered not only because it was feared, but also because it was admired for certain of its characteristics. Pigs are known for their large litters of young and for being fiercely protective as parents. Their survival comes about because they can and do eat such a wide variety of foods: everything from plants to fungi to meats. Served at specific times of the year, the sacrificial pig is offered to the feasters as the taking of the body of the god into one’s own.

At Roman feasts, boar was the first dish served. Like the American Thanksgiving turkey, it was a staple of medieval banquets. A boar was sacrificed to Freyr at the Winter Solstice. Amid trumpets blaring and minstrels singing, the boar’s head with an apple in its mouth, was carried in on a gold or silver platter. This is the theme of the Boar’s Head Pageant.
Thought to be the oldest carol, here is a version from a publication by Thomas Wright in 1841 of the Boar’s Head Carol that was first published in 1521. Also included are the translations of the Latin.

The boar’s head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bay and rosemary
I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio.
(However many are at the feast)

||: Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes domino. :||
(I bring the boar’s head,
giving praises to the Lord)

The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland

Let us servire cantico
(serve with song).
[A tastier version of this line:
Servitur cum sinapio.
(It is served with mustard)]

Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of bliss
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio
(in the Queen’s hall).

First stanza repeats.

To see part of this pageant and hear the carol sung, go to:

Posted in Forn Seðr, Uncategorized.

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